II - Healing Issues in Aboriginal Communities
This chapter will
provide a very brief overview of the social and historical processes which
have contributed to the healing issues which face Aboriginal communities
today. As well, a short description of the current conditions in these
communities which must be addressed in order for Aboriginal people to move
toward well-being in all aspects of their personal and community lives
is included. Next, the current social security system will be examined
in terms of its contribution to the presence or absence of personal, family
and community well-being. Finally, some of the strengths and resources
which Aboriginal people have developed to promote health and balance will
be put forward.
It is important
to note at the outset that no two communities are exactly the same. There
are more than three hundred different Aboriginal cultures across Canada,
each with its own distinct language or dialect and world view, and each
with its own historical experience. This means that the observations in
this chapter will have to be very general. As described in Part III, an
important part of the healing journey is the process of telling the story
of the events which have contributed to current trauma, dysfunction and
pain. In other words, every community needs to be able to tell its own
story. The observations made here are not intended in any way to substitute
for that process. They are merely included to help provide a background
to the identification of the major healing issues which many Aboriginal
communities have in common.
While it is
true to say that no two communities have the same story to tell, it is
also true that Aboriginal people have much in common. Even though linguistic,
cultural and historical differences seem to set Aboriginal communities
apart, the spiritual and philosophical foundations that connect Aboriginal
people from many different nations to the land, to the Creator and to each
other are remarkably similar. It is also true that Aboriginal communities
in Canada have been sharing and learning from each other as they have worked
to develop effective programs and treatment centres to address some of
the important healing issues they all face. This combined experience is
a strong foundation for the tasks still to be accomplished.
The Un-Making of a World: A brief review of historical processes that undermined
traditional systems for maintaining balance and harmony.
The earliest written records we have of contact
between European and Canadian Aboriginal peoples is through the diaries
and journals of explorers, missionaries, traders and government workers.
While each community of people has its own story to tell, there are strong
similarities across the continent in terms of:
a. How Europeans viewed Aboriginal people
(as children, as "in-the-way," as savages, as a problem to be overcome);
b. What motivated European contact with Aboriginal
people (saving souls, commerce and trade, gold and other resources, a need
c. How Aboriginal sovereignty and Aboriginal
land was viewed (all Indigenous peoples are subjects of the Crown and all
lands are property of the Crown and therefore ours to exploit and rule).
These views are confirmed over and over in government
records, Hudson Bay traders' journals, and missionary correspondence. Two
of the latest treaties to be signed in Canada involved the Dene people
of the Mackenzie Valley. Fr. Renee Fumoleau presents very powerful evidence
that even as late as 1900 (Treaty 8) or 1921 (Treaty 11), Aboriginal people
were viewed as obstacles in the way of nation building and the exploitation
of a vast reservoir of natural resources ranging from timber and gold to
oil (Fumoleau, 1973).
What did not happen for the most part in the
relationship between Europeans and Aboriginal people was the meeting of
human beings as equals, and the building of alliances based on mutual respect
and justice. The sheer force of numbers and superior fire-power on the
side of the Europeans and the gradual erosion from within of Aboriginal
people's concept of self-worth and identity all contributed to the gradual
un-making of a way of life.
The Process of Contact
Following is a thumbnail sketch of the process
of European contact. Each of the elements listed occurred in slightly different
ways, in different time frames, and brought different outcomes depending
on which parts of the continent we consider. Nevertheless, most Aboriginal
people have been impacted in some way by all of these.
1. Trade - When Aboriginal people
began getting involved in the fur trade as guides and trappers, many traditional
economies gradually shifted from subsistence (you take what you need) to
being centered on cash. With this shift came a gradual dependence on certain
foods and other staples for which cash was needed. Some of the impacts
of cash dependency were as follows. a) It took more and more time and energy
to get less and less food and other needed trade goods. b) When the fur
trade collapsed at the end of WW I and WW II (Europeans weren't buying
furs), trading posts closed without notice. Trappers and their families
arrived at trading posts with furs but no one was there. Many starved.
c) Traditional economies shifted from mutual responsibility and sharing
as a prime value to individualized wealth and poverty. All of this set
the stage for later welfare dependency.
2. Missionization - European missionaries
came to save souls and introduced a gradual process of eroding away people's
belief in their own spirituality and cultural heritage. One impact was
the introduction of spiritual and cultural self-doubt and distrust of one's
own experiences, traditional wisdom, teachings and ways of understanding
3. Disease - There is some considerable
evidence (from the journals of early European explorers and fur traders
as well as from skeletal remains) that Canadian Aboriginal people prior
to contact were remarkably healthy, both physically and mentally. They
lived a relatively balanced lifestyle with plenty of exercise and a simple,
natural diet. They were well adapted to the bacteria and viruses in their
home environment and they had developed effective strategies, using herbs,
cleansing ceremonies and other therapies, for dealing with disease and
Hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people
died as a direct result of contact with Europeans. The report of the Royal
Commission on Aboriginal People describes what happened in this way.
Famine and warfare contributed, but infectious
diseases were the great killer. Influenza, measles, polio, diphtheria,
smallpox and other diseases were transported from the slums of Europe to
the unprotected villages of the Americas. The subsequent decline of the
indigenous population is often described as genocide or a holocaust. (RCAP,
From an estimated figure of about 500,000 people
before contact, the population of Aboriginal people in Canada had declined
to a bit over 100,000 by 1871. In northern Canada, the major impact of
the disease epidemics came even later. For example, flu epidemics in 1911-12
and again in 1921 killed thousands of Aboriginal people in the North. One
Yukon woman tells the story of a girl who was nine or ten when her entire
family got sick and died. The family was out on the trap line. The little
girl somehow made her way to another camp some fifty mile away. She was
the only survivor in her family of seventeen people.
4. Colonization and Bureaucratization
- The economic and political annexation (i.e. take over) of Aboriginal
peoples and their lands to serve European economic and geo-political interests
left most Aboriginal peoples impoverished and dependent on others for basic
survival needs. Most Canadian Aboriginal people were eventually placed
on set-aside lands called "reserves," and made to organize their community
affairs according to Canadian government legislation (such as the Indian
The chief and council system (really a copy
of the municipal mayor and council model) was imposed, and many aspects
of life from cradle to grave came to be highly regulated. These rules and
regulations were almost never of the people's own making. One overall impact
of this system is an increase in dependency on others to solve problems.
Today, many communities are still struggling with this foreign system of
government that seems to perpetuate fragmentation, disunity and corruption,
and seems to discourage and even undermine the political empowerment of
grassroots people. Communities must also work with a justice system that
is driven by a very different view of how to define and deal with deviance,
dysfunction and imbalances in behaviour.
The report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal
people (cited above) describes this process as follows:
The transformation of Aboriginal people
from the state of good health that had impressed travellers from Europe
to one of ill health, for which Aboriginal people were (and still are)
often held responsible, grew worse as sources of food and clothing from
the land declined and traditional economies collapsed. It grew worse still
as once-mobile peoples were confined to small plots of land where resources
and opportunities for natural sanitation were limited. It worsened yet
again as long-standing norms, values, social systems and spiritual practices
were undermined or outlawed.
Traditional healing methods were decried
as witchcraft and idolatry by Christian missionaries and ridiculed by most
others. Ceremonial activity was banned in an effort to turn hunters and
trappers into agricultural labourers with a commitment to wage work. Eventually,
the Indian Act prohibited those ceremonies that had survived most defiantly,
the potlatch and the sun dance. Many elders and healers were prosecuted.
In these ways, Aboriginal people were stripped of self-respect and respect
for one another. (RCAP, Vol. 2:113)
5. Education - Education was used as a
tool to domesticate (read Europeanize) Aboriginal people. The basic belief
of those who ran the early mission and government residential schools was
that Aboriginal cultures and language were primitive and inferior. The
only chance Native children would have for a "decent" life would be to
learn to speak English (or French), to become good Christians, and to learn
to read, write and think the way white people do. Assimilation was the
conscious goal of education. Native people were to become absorbed into
the dominant culture. They would cease to exist as distinct cultural entities.
Following is a brief outline of the impact
European schooling has had.
a. Some Aboriginal people gained the tools
they needed to live and work with the dominant society. Without these people,
many communities would have had an even greater difficulty with the context
of modern Canada.
b. Whole generations of children who were sent
away to residential schools were not parented within the embrace of their
own families, cultures and communities. Children parented by institutions
have no role models of how to be parents themselves, especially in terms
of passing on the values and teachings of the culture.
c. Many children experienced tremendous fear,
suffering, pain, trauma, and the loss of language, culture, traditions
d. Many children learned to be ashamed of their
own identity, and to distrust and disbelieve in the value of the traditional
e. Cut off from their own past and Native identity
but not accepted in the white world, many of these children grew up caught
"between two worlds."
f. Community norms and boundaries were never
internalized in these children. They never learned traditional concepts
of respect and how to view everyone as "relations." Foreign concepts of
behaviour and boundaries were introduced. Wide-spread physical and sexual
abuse were introduced into the behaviour patterns.
g. When these people returned to their home
communities (1950s and 1960s), the traditional safeguards to protect the
community from disease were simply not there. This generation of children
had grown up without them.
Among these safeguards in may tribes was the
annual cycle of ceremonies marking the turning of the seasons, critical
passages of life (such as birth, puberty, commitment to service, marriage
and death), and significant religious observations. All of these served
as a constant reminder to participants of spiritual purpose, moral boundaries,
duties and responsibilities to self and to the community, and the sacredness
of life. When this framework was removed and not replaced with anything
that effectively achieved the same goals, many people were uprooted from
the very foundations of healthy living with no guidance and no idea where
to turn for guidance. Perhaps this was the greatest loss of all.
6. Health - As mentioned above, prior to
contact Aboriginal people generally had effective methods for preventing
and treating illness and injury. Through the colonization, bureaucratization,
missionization, and education processes described here, the control of
healing and other health practices was largely transferred from Aboriginal
people to programs and institutions sponsored by the Canadian government.
While this new system helped to mitigate some of the devastating health
problems which developed through the early contact period, it also failed
to protect the health and well-being of Aboriginal people in many ways,
including the following.
a. The new health care services had no foundation
in the traditional knowledge and cultural values and practices of First
Nations peoples. They were unfamiliar and frightening for many Aboriginal
people and further undermined their trust in and identification with their
own identity and resources. They also took some Aboriginal people away
from their communities, sometimes for very extended periods, when they
required certain types of medical treatment (e.g. related to tuberculosis).
b. Traditional healers were ridiculed and persecuted.
They had to practice their arts in secret and many Aboriginal people no
longer availed themselves of the benefits of their skills and knowledge
because they did not know how to access these services or because they
had been taught to mistrust, fear or condemn their own healing traditions.
Through this process a great deal of very valuable cultural knowledge has
c. The dominant societyís health system tends
to focus on what some people call the "sick care system" rather than on
a holistic approach to optimal well-being. This means that Aboriginal communities
only have access to certain types of treatment and prevention programs
through government funding, rather than to the type of healing and human
and community development which are needed to restore individuals, families
and communities to the type of health they could enjoy.
d. Aboriginal people lost control over the
institutions and processes which were supposed to protect the health of
their people. They were taught that the dominant society knew best which
services and programs they needed. Even now as many communities are negotiating
with the Canadian government for the transfer of health programs to their
control, they are often being given administrative responsibility for existing
programs but very little real power to actually re-create health and social
service programming in order to move toward maximum health and well-being.
7. Media - The impact of the media on the
thinking and behaviour of community people, especially young people, is
profound in most Aboriginal communities. Dominant culture television, movies
and radio influence everyone towards values of individualism (the rights
and well-being of the individual are more important than those of the community),
materialism, and the ever-declining morals of the dominant culture.
Another significant impact of the media on
the health and well-being of Aboriginal communities is the images and stereotypes
they have perpetuated about First Nations peoples. Media coverage has tended
to focus on problems, on sensational events, and on a rather shallow description
of cultural characteristics. This type of reporting has contributed to
the sense of shame, low self-worth and confusion about cultural identity
which many Aboriginal people feel.
Out of all of
this, a gradual pattern of community disease began to emerge. Some of the
signs and symptoms of that disease included a gradual increase of alcoholism
(which exploded to levels of ninety percent or more in some communities
in the 1950s and Ď60s when it became legal for Aboriginal people to purchase
and consume liquor); power struggles and jealousy created by the new political
system; internal disunity over religion; the introduction of sexual abuse
as a community pattern through the residential school generation; family
and communal violence, suicide and other mental problems; and an increase
in poverty, the neglect of children and dependency due to addiction and
concerning the extent of these problems are difficult to obtain, and they
do vary considerably from one community to another. There is general consensus,
however, on the fact that Canadian Aboriginal people suffer significantly
and disproportionally when compared with the general population from the
effects of poor physical, mental and emotional health. This section briefly
highlights some of the indications of ill health and social breakdown in
Canadian Aboriginal communities.
of Poor Physical Health
health is of course a serious problem in itself. It is often a cause of
trauma and brings on feelings of loss, of poor self-worth and of helplessness
and hopelessness. It also means that people are not able to achieve their
full potential to contribute meaningfully to their families and communities.
It consumes resources which could otherwise be devoted to other development
priorities such as the development of viable economic options, human resource
development or health promotion initiatives designed to move people toward
optimum well-being rather than merely to achieve freedom from disease or
health also provides clear evidence of unacceptable social and economic
conditions in Aboriginal communities. All of the indications of poor physical
health listed below are very directly linked to poverty; to poor housing
and sanitation; to high rates of addiction and other types of dysfunction;
to political and administrative systems which have been unable to rise
to the challenge of developing policies and programs which lead to integrated
social development; to unworkable relationships with the federal and various
provincial governments; and to inequities with respect to access to services,
to opportunities for human resource development, and to the benefits of
economic development in Canada at large. Some examples of the indications
of poor physical health in Aboriginal communities which are also an indication
of more pervasive social and economic breakdown include the following:
of Poor Mental, Social and Community Health
The 1991 Government
of Canada document entitled "Agenda for First Nations and Inuit Mental
Health" offered the following definition of mental health.
the First Nations and Inuit communities, the term mental health is used
in a broad sense, describing behaviours which make for a harmonious and
cohesive community and the relative absence of multiple problem behaviours
in the community, such as family violence, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency
and self-destructive behaviour. It is more than the absence of illness,
disease or dysfunction--it is the presence of a holistic, psychological
wellness which is part of the full circle of mind, body, emotions and spirit,
with respect for tradition, culture and language. This gives rise to creativity,
imagination and growth, and enhances the capacity of the community, family
group or individual to interact harmoniously and respond to illness and
adversity in healing ways. (Steering Committee on native Mental Health,
for First Nations and Inuit Mental Health, p. 6)
This type of holistic
definition of mental health (which is certainly consistent with the approach
taken in this study, paves the way for exploring a range of conditions
which are indicators of the current mental, social and community health
status of Aboriginal communities.
for Aboriginal people in Canada continues to be lower than for non-Aboriginal
people (by about six and a half years for women and seven years for men).
The major causes
of death for Aboriginal men is injuries, including accidents, suicides
and homicides, while the most common causes of death for other Canadians
are cancers and circulatory diseases. Aboriginal women are three times
more likely to die of injuries than non-Aboriginal women.
spend two or three times as much time in the hospital as do a comparable
group of non-Aboriginal people.
rates among Aboriginal people are two to three times higher than those
for the general Canadian population.
continues to be a significant health problem. For example, some Aboriginal
communities are reporting an increase in the number of cases of active
tuberculosis. There is considerable evidence that AIDS may shortly become
a very serious health problem in Aboriginal communities, since all the
risk factors associated with the spread of the disease are prevalent.
of the "life style" diseases associated with western industrialized countries
(e.g. cancer, diabetes, heart disease) are increasing. Although the rates
for some of these diseases (e.g. cancers)are still lower than for the general
population, the rate of diabetes is at least two to three times higher
(depending on the part of the country).
of Aboriginal people with some form of disability is twice that of the
national average. In addition, Aboriginal people generally have a much
lower level of access to services designed to enhance the quality of life
of individuals coping with disabilities.
The health indicators
described in the above section paint a rather one-sided and disheartening
view of the conditions in Canadian Aboriginal communities. It is also important
to explore the many positive initiatives and trends which are taking place.
These will be looked at in Section D below of this chapter, which briefly
examines the resources and strengths Aboriginal communities bring to the
task of re-building their social security system so that it leads to individual,
family and community well-being.
While it is true
that there are many outstanding, visionary, principled, hard-working and
dedicated community workers and leaders in Aboriginal communities, it is
also true that the political, economic and social patterns in some communities
are not contributing what they should to the healing and development processes.
Power struggles, rivalries, long-standing family feuds, inequities in access
to opportunities and the benefits of development, the lack of mechanisms
for meaningful participation in decision-making processes for grassroots
people, and untrustworthy or immoral behaviour on the part of leaders and
community workers are all evidences of a breakdown in the political and
social health of Aboriginal communities.
a major role in what communities now face. Aboriginal people were once
self-reliant and extremely efficient in wining a living from their environment.
Now, communities struggle with generational welfare dependency that averages
fifty percent across Canada, unemployment rates as high as eighty to ninety
percent in some communities, lack of access to well-paying and satisfying
work, and the culture of poverty (i.e. addictions, dependency, apathy,
and perceived powerlessness) as they try to find solutions to the problems
is some debate about the actual rates of substance abuse in Aboriginal
communities, there is no doubt that this problem is causing significant
suffering for individuals, families and communities. It certainly contributes
to the alarming number of deaths by injury (through accidents, suicide
and homicide), to the high rates of disability, and to other physical health
problems such as diabetes, heart disease and liver diseases. It is also
linked to child abuse and neglect, family violence and breakdown, criminal
behaviour, and unemployment. The full effect of fetal alcohol is difficult
to measure, but its impact on the capacity of individuals to lead full,
joyous, creative and productive lives is severe.
The evidence of
widespread family dysfunction can be seen in the high rates of Aboriginal
children in care (approximately seven times as high as for the general
population), the frequency of violence against women and children, the
increase in homeless and vulnerable Aboriginal children on the streets
of Canadian cities, and the number of youth and young adults in federal
and provincial correctional institutions.
infrastructure in for healthy living in many First Nations communities
contributes to physical, mental, emotional and social dysfunction. Housing,
water, sanitation, fire and emergency services, communication and transportation
systems, and recreational, education and health facilities are often not
at a high enough standard or accessible to everyone in the community.
degradation has affected the health of Aboriginal people in a number of
ways. Pollution of the air, soil, water, plants and animals has a direct
impact on the health by causing physical and even mental disease. Second,
the capacity of people to earn their livelihood is compromised as food
sources are contaminated and depleted or as natural resources (e.g. forests
and fish stocks) become scarce. Third, some communities are forced to relocate
in order to escape pollution or in order to make way for the exploitation
of certain parts of the environment. Fourth, communities lose their spiritual
connection to the natural world and to specific sacred places and objects
used for ceremonial and healing purposes. The impact of these types of
losses and changes on individual and community is more fully explored in
Part III of this document.
Through the missionization,
colonization, bureaucratization, and education processes described in the
first section of this chapter, Aboriginal people became disconnected and
alienated from their culturally based spiritual and philosophical resources.
This left many Aboriginal people without a vision for many dark years.
Concepts such as the interconnectedness of all things (the ecological world
view); mutual responsibility, sharing, caring and respect; and technologies
and processes for restoring harmony and balance--all of these have had
to be reintegrated into personal, family and community life.
The Current Social Security System
in Part I of this document, the current Canadian social safety net is made
up of a blend of income security, health and social insurance programs
and a constantly changing array of "social adjustment" services, designed
to help "disadvantaged" groups find their place within the mainstream of
Canadian social and economic life. For Aboriginal people these benefits
typically include access to income support programs (e.g. social assistance,
old age pensions, disability benefits), education benefits and health services
(including both insured and some non-insured benefits such as prescription
drugs, eye glasses and dental work). Reserve communities also receive transfer
payments to provide housing, to operate local government and to run special
programs, ranging from job creation to substance abuse treatment and prevention.
would consider this a rather comprehensive social security system, yet
if we are to judge by the summary of the conditions in Aboriginal communities
presented above, it is clearly not leading to even a minimally acceptable
standard of well-being. Aboriginal people themselves have long been calling
for a reform of the system and the Canadian government is of course anxious
to re-define its own responsibility for social security in Aboriginal communities.
It is not the
scope of this study to explore the full range of issues which must be considered
for comprehensive social security reform. Our focus is the relationship
between the need for individual, family and community healing and the re-creation
of the social safety net, but it is not always easy to make clear distinctions
since all the issues involved in social security reform are closely inter-related.
What follows is a brief summary of some of the factors which must be considered
in order to create a social safety net in Aboriginal communities which
takes into account healing needs and processes.
Strengths and Resources for Healing in Aboriginal Com-munities
Section B of this
chapter summarized some of the conditions in Canadian Aboriginal communities
related to the need for individual, family and community healing. At the
end of that section, we commented that Aboriginal communities also have
many strengths and resources which are being used to move their people
toward greater well-being. This section will attempt to outline some of
those assets, as well as to provide a brief history of the overall development
of what has come to be referred to by many as the Aboriginal healing movement.
Much of the social
security system has been developed without the full consultation of Aboriginal
people and its control is still largely in the hands of federal bureaucrats.
This means that programs are generally not culturally appropriate. They
focus on specific problems or issues rather than being developed from the
standpoint of an integrated definition of health and wellness. They are
standardized rather than adapted to local conditions. They do not honour
traditional values, knowledge and strategies for fostering individual and
family wellness. Outside control also means that a significant portion
of the available funding is taken up maintaining the bureaucratic structure
rather than being chanelled directly into community programs.
Much of the funding
Aboriginal communities receive related to social security is very restricted
in terms of how it can be used. This makes it virtually impossible for
a First Nations community to develop a comprehensive healing and wellness
strategy and then to combine various types of social security monies to
fund it. While a certain portion of the funds designated for social assistance
can be used for human resource development or other measures to get people
off welfare, this ratio is too small. In addition, the criteria for social
assistance support does not always fit well with local conditions. Communities
which try creative approaches to using social assistance funds on programs
designed to increase the capacity of people to be self-reliant, run the
risk of being ruled "non-compliant" and being asked to repay those funds.
DIAND funding criteria force communities to continue with piecemeal approaches
which do not address underlying issues.
There is simply
not enough funding to develop and implement comprehensive healing programs.
Individuals canít get enough help for a long enough period of time and
communities are unable to tackle the tough issues, such as the need for
economic development. While the federal government spends over one billion
dollars annually for social assistance in Aboriginal communities, only
two hundred million is allocated to economic development. From the standpoint
of community healing and development, these figures should be reversed.
Government funding is decreasing precisely at a time when significant investments
in addressing the determinants of health need to be made in order to break
the socially devastating and costly cycle of welfare dependence, addictions
and trauma which is crippling many Aboriginal communities.
The current system
does not provide equal services for all Aboriginal communities. Those living
on reserves are in a different situation than those living in mainstream
urban and rural communities. Status, non-status, Metis and Inuit people
all have access to different levels of service.
Much of the funding
earmarked for health is restricted to gaining access to specific services
related to specific diseases or injuries. For example, funding may be available
for personal or family clinical counselling, but traditional healing methods
are not covered. Treatment centres may receive funding and resources to
deal specifically with substance abuse, but not for the many associated
issues such as dealing with sexual abuse or grieving issues. Funding for
prevention programming makes up a very small part of health budgets and
is usually the first to be cut.
acknowledges the fact that Aboriginal communities cannot continue to rely
entirely on government transfer payments to fund their social security
system, yet real options are difficult to find. First Nations people have
been reduced to living on 0.3 percent of the land mass of Canada, yet they
are expected to become self-sufficient. Until communities have the land
and resource base to build strong local and regional economies, this situation
is not likely to change.
The years between 1950 and 1980 were some of
the darkest years in living memory for many Canadian Aboriginal communities,
but they can also be thought of as the darkest hour before the dawn. For
there really has been a dawn in recent years, a new awareness of spirituality,
Native identity, and healing in many Aboriginal communities across Canada.
The seeds of trust and awakening were always
present, planted by wise elders generations before in stories, songs, ceremonies,
and sacred teachings. Much of those old ways had gone underground because
of religious and legal persecution as well as political repression.
The 1960s were a period of political and cultural
reawakening for many peoples in both the United States and Canada. The
birth of the Aboriginal rights movement, through such organizations as
AIM (the American Indian Movement ) in the United States and the National
Indian Brotherhood in Canada, marked the visible and more public beginning
of a new era in modern Aboriginal healing.
In addition to the political empowerment process,
three other powerful streams have contributed to the emergence of what
is clearly an indigenous peoples healing movement.
They are :
revival of traditional spirituality.
introduction of personal growth and healing as a primary line of action
in community life through such
programs as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and a whole host of strategies and
programs for addressing substance abuse, sexual abuse, violence, and the
need for personal growth.
3. The health
promotion and healthy communities movement.
Many communities have experienced the revival
of old ceremonies, practices and teachings such as smudging, the sweat
lodge, the use of the sacred pipe, fasting, vision quests, and ceremonies
for naming, healing, reconciliation, and personal or collective commitment.
Some communities seemed to have forgotten their own ceremonies and so whole
generations of younger men and women travelled to other communities and
tribes across the continent to find spiritual teachers who would help them
recover something of their own Aboriginal spiritual teachings and practices.
Sometimes, as the teachings and songs of another tribe were introduced
in a community, the elders would begin to share their own heritage which
they had hidden away in their hearts for so many years.
What is significant about all of this relative
to the issue of addressing social security reform is that the bringing
back and re-legitimizing of traditional spiritual and cultural teachings
has already contributed a great deal to community healing and development
processes. Indeed, much of the primary thinking about what healing is,
how it can be promoted and maintained, and how it is intimately contained
in the whole hoop of life encompassing individuals, families, groups, organizations,
communities, and nations-- many of these insights have come from indigenous
people's cultural foundations, and are now actually being borrowed and
used by dominant society health practitioners because they are so powerful
The other primary stream which continues to
contribute to the indigenous people's healing movement (in addition to
the political empowerment process and the revival of indigenous spirituality
and culture) is the addictions and human potential movement. For example,
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has made a significant contribution. It is important
to note that many Aboriginal people have been helped through participation
in AA, and also many communities have been impacted and helped because
AA members stuck it out and persistently held meetings (sometimes for years)
even if only a few people ever came. It is also fair to say that many communities
took AA concepts and practices (such as the twelve steps) and integrated
them into healing approaches that were better suited to community realities
and conditions than non-Native, urban approaches to running AA meetings.
At the same time, the adult children of alcoholics and codependency models
were emerging out of AA, and these approaches have also been a profound
influence on the content and process of the Aboriginal healing movement
through the pioneering work of people like Jane Middleton-Moss and Ann
The human potential movement provided another
sub-stream in the healing process. This movement has its origins in gestalt
therapy, holistic health, eastern yoga, meditation and cultural development
strategies, and in the performing arts, (theatre, music, and dance applied
to healing). From this sub-stream came a strong focus on health and wellness
rather than sickness. The health promotion/determinants of health approach
is now recognized by dominant culture health professionals as a legitimate
strategy for addressing fundamental health issues. This departure from
the "medical model" has much in common with Aboriginal community healing
concepts and practices. The Aboriginal healing movement has gained support
and legitimization from the mainstream health promotion field. The converse
is also truth. The field of health promotion has also been significantly
enriched by exposure to Aboriginal models and strategies.
In Canada, the Aboriginal healing movement
was given a major boost by the Health and Welfare Canada through the establishment
in 1982 of the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP).
The first directors of this program made a tremendous contribution to the
Canadian Aboriginal healing movement simply by listening to indigenous
community voices, and supporting indigenous thinking in the building of
solutions to address the prevention and treatment of alcohol and drug abuse.
By the early 1980's, alcohol and drug abuse had been recognized by Aboriginal
leaders and health professionals as the number one health problem facing
Aboriginal people in Canada.
As can be seen from this thumbnail sketch outlining
the emergence of the Aboriginal health movement, no one person, group,
or community can be credited with starting the movement. Spiritual leaders,
elders, and very many others had been praying for some way to help their
communities out of the black hole of despair that was engulfing them and
killing many of their people. Countless community heroes and heroines have
sacrificed years of their lives to bring it about and there were many outside
helpers who arose in the form of role model communities or helping organizations
that continue to contribute to the process. The following section lists
some of the types of resources and strengths which Aboriginal communities
in Canada have developed through this courageous and dedicated search for
processes which would help return their people to the health and balance
they once enjoyed.
Assets and Resources for Healing
It is important not to underestimate the tremendous
resources and strengths which Aboriginal communities already have as they
tackle the challenge of rebuilding strong, healthy nations. As mentioned
earlier, they have a great deal to teach Canadian society in general when
it comes to understanding the central role of healing in any human and
community development processes. What follows is a brief summary of the
strengths which can be built on for the task of creating a social security
system which leads to well-being and prosperity.
Elders and other spiritual/cultural leaders who
continue to share traditional knowledge and personal insight about healing
and human and community development, to serve as counsellors and healers
for individuals, and to lead ceremonies and other community renewal processes.
Many Aboriginal communities are also beginning to realize that these valuable
resource people need support to do their own healing work so that they
can perform their roles in the most effective way possible.
A network of substance abuse treatment centres
(both local and regional) has been developed over the past several decades.
These centres have gained an incredible wealth of experience and have helped
thousands of individuals and families. The National Association of Native
Treatment Centre Directors has also done pioneering work in developing
healing models, conducting related research, and sharing culturally appropriate
training and learning resources. Of course, many more treatment centres
are needed and they need to be given the resources they need to be able
to deal with a wide range of healing issues.
A core group of front-line community workers (e.g.
NNADAP workers and CHRs) have received training and have gained a great
deal of experience in working with individuals and families around healing
issues. This core group is not large enough and is often under-trained
and under-resourced, yet it does represent a significant existing resource.
Aboriginal communities have developed creative
training processes and models for
personal, family and community healing which they
have been sharing with each other through workshops and conferences and
through the development of more formalized training such as that offered
by the Nechi Centre in Alberta.
Some Aboriginal communities have developed visionary
integrated social development plans which bring political will and financial
resources to healing and community development processes over a sustained
period. Many of these communities are also building wellness or healing
centres of various kinds.
A growing body of print and audio-visual resource
material about healing issues has been developed over the past two decades,
much of it made possible in some way through NNADAP or other programs of
Some Aboriginal communities have made considerable
headway in gaining control over their health program through the health
transfer process. Their experience will help make it possible for others
communities to use this step as effectively as possible.
The report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal
People has documented the issues related to human and community development
in a comprehensive and balanced way which can serve as a foundation for
many years to come. In addition, the research and development work which
the Assembly of First Nations is sponsoring on social security reform (and
of which this document is only one part) has the potential to help shape
the future of Aboriginal community healing and development.
A number of communities across Canada have developed
role model innovations in the healing work and are serving as an inspiration
to many others. We have chosen to briefly highlight two cases studies in
Part IV of this document.